Airpower reborn

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Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd. Edited by John Andreas Olsen.Naval Institute Press, Annapolis MD, 2015.
Reviewed by Dr Gregory P. Gilbert

Western strategists must overcome their obsession with “the battle,” and instead concentrate on comprehending both the enemy and friendly systems and their leaderships, which represent both the cause of the conflict and the source of any sustainable solution. John A. Olsen, p. 3

LIKE much that has been written on airpower theory Airpower Reborn is a thought provoking but dense and difficult read. It aims for a paradigm shift away from the traditional land-centric approach towards a winning strategy focused on ending wars rather than fighting them. The contributors to this work unanimously see the application of airpower as the critical feature or main force within 21st century warfare, with the strategic concepts of Colonels John Boyd and John Warden central to this view.

Airpower Reborn consists of an introduction and five chapters by some of the world’s leading airpower thinkers. As one would expect from such a group with diverse geographical backgrounds – Norway, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, United States and Australia – not all visualise the utility of modern airpower in the same way. For instance, Colin S Gray, the only contributor without an air force background, is perhaps less enthusiastic about airpower than others even though he does not undersell airpower’s contribution.

John Olsen, Airpower Reborn’s editor, adds his own thoughts while bringing the chapters together in the introduction. It would also have been useful if Olsen included an overview within a concluding chapter. The main chapters include: Peter R Faber on airpower theory and its historical struggles up to the 1980s; Frans PB Osinga discussing John Boyd’s work; and John A Warden III adding to his earlier work on the five rings model and system warfare.

My personal favourite is Alan Stephens’s description of what he calls ‘fifth-generation strategy’. I would agree that much of the West’s preferred military strategy for 50 years has demonstrated that the traditional model is broken. I believe however that both air and sea power thinking can both offer useful alternatives to the battle-orientated Clausewitzian mindset. For example the recent deployment of an Australian air task group and special forces to Iraq, under Operation OKRA, demonstrated that airpower concepts have made some progress within Australian strategic thinking. Nevertheless the subsequent deployment of Australian ground troops to Iraq once again confirms that the Clausewitzian approaches continue to dominate at the highest levels within the Australian Government and Defence Force.

The final chapter of Airpower Reborn presents Colin Gray’s 27 airpower theory dicta. These are a useful guide for the application of airpower in current military operations. Gray challenges some of the commonly held airpower beliefs while also bringing together the essential concepts that underpin much of today’s strategic thought. They offer a practical set of fundamentals for today’s military planners.

Written for the widest possible audience, not just for the ‘blue-suiters’, Airpower Reborn is laden with concise explanation, new and critical thinking, as well as specific airpower concepts and terminology. Its very depth of thought and detail may repel much of its intended readership however that would be a disappointing outcome because much of what is discussed in Airpower Reborn is, in my opinion, that which is essential for the defence strategic community – military, civilian, political, academic and media – to understand. The land-centric approach to warfare, that has dominated the majority of recent Australian defence deployments, has ignored alternative, outcome focussed air and sea power approaches. At times the planning and conduct of joint operations has been more ‘green’ than ‘purple’.

Airpower Reborn is an important book which is useful for any military professional’s individual development but which should also be beneficial for anyone interested in 21st century military operations. Hopefully Airpower Reborn gains the readership it deserves and the Western military is willing to adapt its mindset with the paradigm shift that is clearly necessary.

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